Reviewby Nick Creamer,
Anthem of the Heart
Long ago, the young girl Jun Narase dreamed of one day attending a ball at the glamorous castle on the hill. After once seeing her father driving out of that castle, she returned home to excitedly tell her mother, not realizing she'd just described her father's infidelity. And so her family falls apart, and after her father tells her it was all her fault, she falls into despair until a strange egg tells her she can save herself from further heartbreak, and maybe even find her prince on a hill. All it would take is to forever seal away her dangerous voice.
If you expect a movie called “Anthem of the Heart” to have its own heart somewhere in the vicinity of its sleeve, you won't be disappointed. This is a movie about secret hearts and burning youth, full of characters who can't say what they feel and highlighted by moments of thundering emotional catharsis. If anyone could pull off a story like that, it'd be this team - reuniting the writer, director, and even character designer of anohana and Toradora!, this is a group that is well-equipped to champion the trials of adolescence. And they certainly pull it off - Anthem of the Heart is not a perfect film, but it's an endearing and solidly constructed drama that left me wanting to visit its characters one more time.
The story first introduces us to Jun Narase, the girl who seals her words away after she's blamed by her unfaithful father for her parents' divorce. After that defining event, Jun stops speaking altogether, until the day she's assigned to her class's community outreach committee to design an event for a class performance. The three other members of that committee form the other pillars of the cast. There's Takumi Sakagami, a generally well-liked boy who never seems to show much interest in anything. Natsuki Nitou, the straight-laced girl who apparently has some kind of past with Takumi. And Daiki Tasaki, the former baseball ace whose blown elbow has left him a bitter relic on the team's sidelines. None of these four are interested in designing a performance, much less with each other - but when Jun witnesses Takumi singing a silly little song about eggs and words, she begins to think music may be a way to let free the feelings trapped in her heart.
That summary makes it seem like this might be a pretty treacly-sweet film, but the movie sells its characters through the strength of the telling. Over many small scenes, you slowly learn the context of the things each of these characters can't express, told gently as they naturally move towards each other. Even Takumi, who initially comes off as an archetypal milquetoast lead, comes to feel like a full person. This character-building is strongly aided by the fact that each of these characters are given plenty of opportunities to demonstrate both their better and worse selves. For example, Daiki initially has no interest in participating in the committee, and so he singles out Jun for her inability to speak. When Takumi moves to her defence, he doesn't do it by pointing out the fact that Daiki isn't helping either - he cruelly strikes at Daiki's biggest insecurity, and tells him he's just being a burden to the baseball team. One of the consistent refrains in Anthem is the violent and often unwanted power of the words we speak, and I commend the film for demonstrating that by letting its protagonists be as petty and mean as unhappy people can actually be.
As the story continues, Jun realizes her word-stealing curse doesn't apply to singing, and so she petitions Takumi and the others to let her write a musical for their performance. The play she comes up with, full of doomed heroines and townspeople who just never understood them, is an unabashedly adolescent call for help and understanding, and in the context of a film like this, that's perfect. These characters are adolescents crying out for help, and the movie respects that utterly. Though the emotions on display here are often raised to larger than life crescendos, the film is also full of smaller, more intimate scenes that make the big moments ring true.
There's a quiet loneliness to many of the sequences here that really sells them, and the film also isn't afraid to step into key spaces that many adolescent dramas avoid. It doesn't redeem Jun's parents, for one - her father is only ever a selfish man, and though her mother's actions are understandable in a human sense, they still make life very hard for Jun. Another key thread of the story concerns a lack of communication in two of the protagonists' prior relationship, which is a very worthwhile dramatic space most anime seems hesitant to visit. Overall, in spite of the story's ultimate passion and optimism, the underlying acceptance (and eventual thematic enshrinement) of the fact that sometimes bad things just happen makes the story feel somewhat grounded throughout.
Anthem of the Heart is also significantly buoyed by its aesthetic strengths. The character designs are very expressive, and though the animation doesn't have quite as much personality as you might hope in a feature film, it's well up to the task of conveying Jun's personality almost entirely through body language. Jun's movements act as a consistent counterpoint to her silence, demonstrating the passionate and almost hyperactively emotional girl hidden by the egg's curse.
The direction and art direction are also strong. The film's backgrounds are lovely, and the compositions vary between closeup shots of characters in inner turmoil and mid-distance shots stranding them in either the corner or bare center of the frame. The lighting amplifies this effect, making strong contrasts of light and shadow that characters continuously navigate in thematically relevant ways. And there are even some nice picture-book flourishes employed to depict Jun's fairytale story.
The music is perhaps the film's greatest strength, appropriate for a movie about the power of music to convey emotional truth. A combination of classical and stage musical tracks make up the soundtrack for the class play, and the background music is populated with lovely ballads and folk songs. Most of the film's standout sequences involve extended musical interludes, letting the characters' actions do the talking as the soundtrack hammers the emotions home.
There are definitely some points where the film stumbles. While normally the execution is relatively graceful, the characters sometimes overtell their feelings, meaning that some sequences in the last act feeling like characters announcing their motivations in a way that doesn't jibe with the people they'd been until then. Additionally, the final conflicts hinge on a couple of the patented adolescent drama-makers that most of the film avoids, old creaky tricks like one character overhearing another's maybe-confession. The film has to stretch a little to justify its dramatic structure, and the route the narrative will take can pretty much be guessed within the first fifteen minutes.
But in spite of that, Anthem of the Heart wins out on sincerity and execution. Its characters feel like actual friends, and its story moves confidently through classic but reliable dramatic motions. It's an endearing little film that tells one small story with some real grace. Definitely recommended.
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : B+
Animation : B+
Art : A-
Music : A
+ Fleshed-out characters and strong execution make for a sturdy adolescent drama
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